June marks the anniversary of ISIS's capture of Mosul, the capital of the Nineveh Governorate, in 2014. Six years later, the challenges which contributed to the rise of ISIS remain deeply ingrained even while new ones emerge. In many ways, life remains paused because of COVID-19. Iraq's Central Government has taken several noteworthy steps, such as visiting Nineveh and attempting to hold the militias accountable. But community distrust remains pervasive.
Despite a brief reopening attempt by the Nineveh Governorate, the region remains under lockdown as COVID-19 spreads. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by the end of June, there were 276 confirmed cases in the governorate, with 128 still active and three fatalities. Many residents remain unaware of the spread of COVID-19 in their locale but are deeply aware of the broader implications.
For example, a Qeraqosh resident shared with ICC how "I've seen Qeraqosh is not infected by COVID-19 itself, but it is highly infected by its results. I mean the economy, a lot of people lost their jobs. Personally, I know more than 15 drivers who used to go from and to Erbil everyday carrying passengers, all of them lost their jobs, more and more."
A recent publication from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) studied which population groups within Iraq were more impacted by COVID-19 compared to others. When measured, internally displaced persons (IDPs) scored 47%, and returnees scored 11%. It is worth remembering that IDPs, mostly displaced into the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), remain more accessible than returnees to humanitarian services.
Likewise, the same IOM report noted that NGOs and religious organizations are tied for second place at 28% as the largest assistance providers to impacted communities. NGOs already face stringent barriers when providing humanitarian aid in Iraq, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issue.
For the first time since the genocide, an Iraqi Prime Minister visited Qeraqosh, Bartella, and Karemlesh. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's visit was a surprise for many residents, who have mixed feelings about his office tenure.
"I think ISIS as militia would never come back to Qeraqosh. It has a different shape now, lack of jobs, economic collapse, and displacement, all that is ISIS in another face," said one Qeraqosh resident. "As for Al-Kadhimi's visit, I think it is just to get international support. It is to tell the world that he cares about minorities, but in reality, he will do nothing."
"The other matter is that the Prime Minister is a toy in the hands of Islamic parties, he cannot move unless he has Iranian permission," adds another local. "We are hoping that the COVID crisis has an end soon, we can't stand for a long time without infections, and one infection in Qeraqosh could turn to disaster."
Not long after this visit, the Prime Minister again surprised the country by taking a strong stance against militia members of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Iraq's
Counter-Terrorism Services (ICTS) arrested multiple members of the militia Kataib Hezbollah on June 25th after they had threatened the government. Though this occurred in Baghdad, Christians immediately thought of the Nineveh Governorate since it is largely controlled by PMF militias.
"Those militias have no difference than ISIS. Actually, they are worse because they have power, influence, and politicians," said one Christian. "Hezbollah is doing exactly what ISIS did; that's why the ICTS attacked them last night. The difference is that ISIS is based on some sort of theology while those Iranian militias pretend they are protecting you while they are stealing the country's wealth."
Iraq's Central Government has repeatedly promised to control these militias, especially in Nineveh. These latest actions come as the United States and Iraq engaged in a strategic dialogue regarding the future of cooperation. This included discussing security and counter-terrorism issues. According to a jointly released statement, "The United States, with its international partners, emphasized its continued support for Iraq's electoral preparations, efforts to strengthen rule of law, human rights, and the return and reintegration of displaced people, especially the smaller components of Iraqi society that were targeted for genocide by ISIS."
Whether it is because of the militias or the shadow of ISIS, many Christian families continue to express concern about the polarization of their communities. One Christian who is originally from Telkef shared how "families are still under threats at some Christian villages like Telkef and Batnaya. There are no Christian forces there, and even the priests didn't go back there, or very few of them went back. Still, people have the fear of having ISIS members among them as sleeping cells."
This individual currently lives in Mosul but worries regularly about the future. She continues, "as for Mosul, I was working at the university there before ISIS. I could feel some of the collogues were waiting for ISIS to join them and start kicking the minorities out of Mosul. We cannot be safe in Mosul currently; ISIS ideology is still there. Christians can never be safe there; there are a very low percentage of good Muslims."
Crop fires are a common expression of sectarian tension, and although a fire in Karmalesh was ruled as accidental, for many it brought to mind these challenges. One Christian activist said following this fire, "The Federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government always avoid saying the truth to prevent a possible ignition for a long civil war among minorities on these disputed areas. Both governments are neglecting the truth instead of chasing and looking for the guilty, especially since the burning is happening to the most important products in Iraq."
"The governments are neglecting the evidence," he continues. "Many times, they have found phones and lenses. Both are a good start if the government wanted to look for who did the burnings.
Meanwhile, Sinjar was burning because of increased Turkish airstrikes. Turkey has long conducted military operations in this area, but these latest attacks were distinctive in that they targeted Yazidi families who had just returned home from displacement. Yezidi activist and Nobel laureate Nadia Murad wrote on Twitter, "Mount Sinjar is a war zone right now. Turkish fighter jets are bombing multiple locations. Over 150 Yazidi families had just returned to their homes. When will the Iraqi Government and the international community apply some courage and political will to resolving security challenges in Sinjar?"
Turkey claims they are targeting those affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). However, Turkey's airstrikes are indiscriminate, often result in civilian causalities, and usually occur in areas home to minority groups. A statement from the Press Office of the People's Defense Forces (HPG) said that "These attacks are no different from the genocidal ISIS mentality. The occupant Turkish state has carried out airstrikes on Medya Defense Zones, Maxmur Refugee Camp, and Shengal (Sinjar)."
"The invading Turkish state seeks to cover up the massacres it is to commit by distorting the truth on the attacks that have targeted civilian population protecting their land and the self-defense forces they themselves have formed," continued the statement.
An IOM report for June 15-20 documented 677 displaced persons returning to Nineveh's Sinjar and al-Ba'aj districts. Many of these individuals were returning from locations near the Turkish border. The IOM report cited an improved security situation and rehabilitated infrastructure for the reason why these IDPs returned. It did not mention the Turkish airstrikes.
The United Nations again urged Iraq's Central Government to adopt laws relating to war crimes. However, COVID-19 and an economic crisis have taken much of the government's attention.
The pandemic situation also continues to significantly hinder the United Nations Investigative Team (UNITAD). An app initially meant to gather COVID-19 data was expanded by UNITAD as a means of gathering evidence from diaspora victims regarding the genocide. Capacity building and the digitalization of evidence remain a priority for UNITAD. Remote programming was introduced, such as a training session led by UNITAD's Iraq Witness Protection and Support Unit, which would support those working with victims of ISIS's genocide.